The Minnesota Historical Society’s Library-Museum in 1892
I’ve been reading the annual and biennial reports of the Minnesota Historical Society in the 19th century, most of them written by the Society’s stalwart Secretary/Librarian, J. Fletcher Williams.
Williams had a high opinion of the Library he carefully developed over the three decades of his tenure, between 1863 and 1893. In William’s first report, composed in 1868, the library as a subject consumed a few paragraphs of space, including a table of acquisition statistics. But toward the end of Williams’s tenure, his library essays grew to occupy a dozen pages of his report to the Legislature –a document approved by the MHS Executive Council and distributed the Society’s members and friends.
This is a story from Williams’ last report, written in 1892 for presentation to the Legislature in 1893. The story drew me in at first because it reminded me of modern-day Saturdays in the Library during History Day season, or of trying to think in the galleries on a school field trip day.
But then I got to Williams punchline.
The setting of this story: ca. 1892 in the Minnesota Historical Society’s hall on the lower level of the State Capitol building in St. Paul (above, 1874), where the “museum” consisted of five glass-fronted display cases squeezed in between the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the Library/Reading Room.
This story appears under the heading, “The Library as a School of Instruction.”
“The value of the public library, as a school of instruction, is not sufficiently recognized, except perhaps by those who, like the librarians themselves, see instances of it so often…. Young people should receive every encouragement possible and all facilities given them which are within reach. Many of our readers are young people, and the librarian gives them every possible chance to get any information which they may seem to be in search of, although their ideas of what they really want are often quite vague and unformed. But everything available is always pleasantly put at their disposal, as freely as if they were the most important persons in the realm.
Our museum, although quite limited in variety, and poorly lighted, attracts large numbers of the younger classes of our community. The noise of the ingress and egress of these juvenile visitors, their loud talk, and the fact that they invariably leave the door open, either in going or coming, and especially so in the coldest weather, does not altogether make their patronage desirable, to some of our readers [library patrons], but we bear it patiently, because our duty is to do so, for the benefit of the class mentioned, whose wants are so great, and whose advantages, so limited. The throwing open of museums and art galleries for free visitation of the street juvenile class is one of the most useful works of the education of the untutored young. It may awaken in the mind of some untutored youth, new and valuable ideas, which may be the germ of great development.
A careless boy, looking at the objects of a museum or at a painting, may have thoughts awakened in his mind, which may lead the way to his becoming one of the greatest scientists in the country…. One cannot look at the groups of children attracted by the objects in our museum, without seeing the possibility, and the duty, of trying to lead their attention into the paths of study and investigation. They are an interesting study. Every little knot of these future citizens shows their varied origin. The flaxen-haired descendants of the North-men, the dark-skinned children of Italy, the well-known types of the Teutonic, the Slavic, even the African races, are all mingled in every group which seeks the privilege of seeing the curiosities in a public museum. Still, we have not now the facilities, nor the room, to make our exhibition of historical and archaeological curiosities so free as we would wish. In the larger and better edifice, arranged for those purposes, which we hope to have in the future, that can all be provided for.
But now we can only sow the seed of our coming harvest. The street gamin who cautiously approaches the desk of the Librarian with the inquiry: “Mister, haint you got no books about pirates, or killing Injuns?” is only stepping in the first tracks towards the evolution into a reader and scholar. This feeble desire to read, to learn, must be encouraged, and supplied with the proper food. Libraries and museums here find their real work.”
The inspiration for the “gamin’s” request isn’t hard to imagine. The cases in the MNHS Library in 1892 featured sabers and guns dating from the Revolutionary War onward. A child might associate them with pirates, whether or not Williams had acquired books about them.
As to “killing Injuns,” the child had to look no further than the cabinet containing scalp and arm bones of Dakota chief Little Crow. (Little Crow’s skull was not accessioned and added to the tableau until 1896.) Yes: Mister Williams had plenty of books to offer on that subject.
Source: [J. Fletcher Williams] Seventh Biennial Report of the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul to the Legislature of Minnesota, Session of 1893. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith, 1892, p. 33-34.
Image: Detail from 1874 Andreas Map of St. Paul